Jon Moss, of the special forces group known only as “The Regiment”, is used to doing politically expedient ‘jobs’ in tinpot countries. But the last place he ever expected to be deployed was a snow-bound alien planet. It’s just lucky he can ski, he’s going to need it.
When an unknown comet appears in the skies above Earth, like most people, Jon doesn’t give it a second thought. But when the comet is revealed to be a ship, an envoy from a galactic society, it’s time for Earth to sit up and listen.
The technology on offer is staggering, but there’s a price. The Galactics need help with a few small ‘domestic problems’, ones that Jon and the Regiment are used to solving. Soon Jon and his unit find themselves deployed off-world, where they must learn to fight in strange new environments and adapt to new weapons to survive.
But, what does this highly structured galactic society really want with humans? And, why wait until now to make contact?
On the frozen rocky world called Marbel, Jon’s team discover that not everything is quite as it seems. It’s a hard-fought discovery for which they may just pay the ultimate price and Jon will have to choose between saving a comrade in arms, or something much, much larger.
The massive survey starship exited subspace with a snap, carrying with it a flood of short lived, flaring antiquarks into normal space. Within minutes, the lumbering ship had its main engines firing. By any conventional standard, the engines were enormously powerful, obliterating kilograms of matter every minute when operating at maximum thrust. Against the bulk of the starship though, they would take weeks to bring it to bear on its new vector.
But that was all by design.
While the ship was maneuvering, the system it had arrived at would be scanned, and any probes from the last survey ship to pass through would be located, retrieved, and replaced. In the case of this system, there were several planets and moons that warranted dedicated monitoring probes. Although none of those needed to be more than a simple class one monitor.
The probes themselves were nothing more than passive devices, recording imagery, electromagnetic emanations, subspace flux and various other measurements. It could be hundreds of cycles between surveys but, by carefully controlling sample rates, the probes could go a long time between recalls.
Not long after the starship’s arrival, information laden probes started returning to the ship. Each would first be skimmed by a specialist, before being assigned to a team of catalogers, who would spend the following months digesting every detail each probe had to disgorge.
Each specialist’s job was to determine whether the planet or moon being monitored was progressing within the expected range of variance, according to the records from previous surveys. Anything unexpected had to be reported, logged, and a determination made as to whether the ship should slow, and spend more time investigating the variance.
The specialists were scrupulous, diligent and a thorn in the starship’s centarch’s side. The centarch of this particular starship was young and ambitious, and he had no intention of spending one more moment on the survey mission than he absolutely had to. He had a career to develop, and this long dull survey had been a major setback in his political aspirations. He was positive the survey appointment had been engineered by a rival. And, he had every intention of finding out exactly who, just as soon as he was done with the survey and was back in the core systems.
And to make matters worse, every time one of the primitive races they were monitoring developed fire, or a better way of killing each other, the specialists would require that he delay while they consulted with each other. They would read back the records from previous surveys, and generally just waste time deciding whether the latest variation warranted a change in classification, or an upgrade of the class of monitoring probe. The specialists lived for this sort of thing, literally, as tens of thousands of cycles of careful genetic selection and alteration, had culminated to bring their caste to this point. Reviewing huge information stores was their very purpose in life.
So, not long into this voyage, the centarch had quietly arranged for one of the recovered probes to explode violently. It had killed the three specialists working on it, and provided a justification for his operational staff to land each incoming probe in one of the starship’s shielded maintenance bays. For everyone’s ‘safety’.
With access to the bay restricted. He, and a few carefully selected officers, could check that each probe was functional and ‘safe’. In actuality, they took that time to pre-review each probe’s store of images and skim its data stores. Only when they agreed a probe was sufficiently innocuous, would they pass it on to the specialists.
Of course, this meant that occasionally the centarch had to jettison a probe. But, it was not unknown that probes became lost, or were made inoperable by various cosmic events. And the specialists were too busy arguing amongst themselves over the minutiae of their work, to notice that this particular survey mission had a significantly higher probe failure rate than previous ones.
It was late on the lonely third watch, not long after arrival in this particular system when the centarch’s com pod chimed. There were only two conditions that warranted a call during third watch, and he wasn’t expecting an attack. He woke and shook himself like a buthan at dusk, to get his circulation moving.
“Go ahead,” he said, still groggy from sleep.
The ensign’s voice was curt. “Centarch, as per standing order seven seven nine, I’m notifying you we have recovered the first monitor probe from this system.”
“Acknowledged,” he said, and terminated the connection.
For a moment, he contemplated returning to the warm, inviting sand in the sleep pit. But, he knew more probes would arrive soon, and if he could vet this one quickly, then they’d be able to review the remainder at a more leisurely pace.
As it was the middle of third watch, the maintenance bay was even quieter than usual. The probe was cold and pockmarked from over a hundred cycles of micrometeorites and vacuum abrasion. But, like all precursor technology, it connected flawlessly to the monitor station. He began reviewing the imagery the probe had stored.
While the warfare that was occurring on the monitored world was extensive, it was still primitive, consisting mostly of basic mechanization and muscle power. He took his time flicking through the imagery. They were a violent race, not unlike his own Ka-Li in many ways.
He skipped forward. The specialists would find this all terribly interesting, but he stifled back a yawn. Then, as he reviewed more recent times his air-slits flared. The probe’s orbital monitor had picked up on rudimentary astro-engineering, simple satellites and basic habitats. This would mean a reclassification of this particular race. They would likely go from a class three to class four civilization. The specialists would of course demand a full survey, and that would put the survey back hundreds of watches.
There was little point looking further, this probe could not end up in the specialists possession. He disconnected the monitor, clamped a grav-pallet onto the rough, pitted probe and floated it toward the hatch. It had been his policy to deactivate and jettison the probes he deemed too ‘dangerous’ to release to the specialists. Ostensibly, it was for the safety of the starship, but the last thing he wanted was hard evidence that he’d been tampering with the survey results.
He would deal with his pre-review officers before the survey returned. And if an enquiry ever eventuated, as long as the probes themselves could not be found and checked, his version of events would have to be accepted over that of a mere technician. But, with this probe, he was the only one who was aware of its contents, and there was interesting material in the probe’s stores too. It might provide him with something other than administrative paperwork to peruse over the remainder of this long, dull, survey voyage.
He marked the probe in the log as ‘non functional, jettisoned for safety’. Then he floated it out into the access-way, and locked it away in a nearby bay, securing it with the previous centarch’s access code, just to be safe.
Jon brought the sleek volantor to a hover scant meters above the peak, whipping the powder dry snow into a billowing blinding mass.
“Damn”, he muttered as his view of the peak all but vanished. He lifted the volantor a little higher, and gave the flurry a few seconds to settle before checking the surface again. Once the air cleared, it was obvious that there was no way he’d be able to get the volantor down safely at the top. But, getting this close had its advantages, he’d got a superb view of the drop into the chute that started right from the summit. And it made him smile.
Jon had been eyeing off this particular peak all week. It was visible from the hut he’d been camping in down in the valley. He’d seen the near vertical face on the first day of his trip. Each day on his way out, and then again on the return trip, he’d flown slowly over and around the peak, scoping out the face, trying to memorize each chute, drop, cliff, and the powder field below. It wasn’t steeper or harder than anything he’d skied competing, longer maybe, but he had the legs for it.
From the moment he saw it, he had decided that it would make the perfect final run for the week. And now, after seven days of skiing some of the most challenging backcountry terrain in British Colombia, he finally felt in full form, and ready to tackle the imposing face.
Two sharp ridges of rock-covered snow arose ruler straight to meet at the peak, which was as sharp up close as it had looked from the valley below. The far side of the peak was a sheer, rocky nightmare, devoid of snow and completely un-skiable. But the side facing into the valley had a narrow snowy chute, looking like a stripe of war paint, leading from the summit. It was a fifty degree strip to be sure, but it provided access to the fields of pristine powder below.
Jon banked away from the peak and flew along the ridge, following it down until he found an area that could accommodate his volantor. He set her down gently, keeping the lift fans running at eighty percent. The nimble little craft barely made a mark in the snow as it settled onto its skids.
The sun was only a couple of hands above the horizon, and from where he’d set down it would be a twenty minute hike back up to the peak on foot. Still, that gave him ample time to make the ascent before dark, and enjoy his final run back to the hut for the week. So he popped the canopy, pulled his skis and pack out of the luggage compartment and dropped to the snow, sinking down up to his knees.
“Warning, satellite and network unavailable, local communication only,” chimed the mechanical voice of the volantor’s AI as he exited. It had started doing that when he pulled the satellite antenna cable, which he’d done the day he’d arrived. What he’d wanted was a nice quiet week away, and that didn’t include getting frustrating calls from his ex-wife. How she always seemed to know when he was on leave was a mystery.
But Vee’s incessant pestering was getting on his nerves too. Not for the first time he considered plugging her antenna back in. It would be the safe thing to do. He had both an avalanche transponder and a PEB, a personal emergency beacon, both of which could punch a signal all the way to orbit if something went wrong. So, as he had all week, he ignored the warning.
He double tapped a canine, triggering his com link. “Vee, liftoff and return to the cabin. If I haven’t made contact in two hours activate emergency protocols.”
“Copy,” said the AI, and the volantor’s canopy hissed shut. Her fans spun up to a whine as she lifted away, then quietened as she dropped below the ridge and out of sight. The volantor would return to the cabin in under a minute. His trip would be somewhat longer, and significantly more adrenaline filled. Of course, first he had to make the trek up the peak.
He packed the snow down making a platform for his skis and clipped into the mag-safe bindings. His Volkl V-Zero variable profile skis may not have been the latest model, they’d been custom made back when he’d been competing as a sponsored skier, but, even years later, there was no commercial ski that even came close to them. The Volkls morphed into an efficient cross country profile and he began the climb up to the peak.
By the time he made it to the top, the sun was gently kissing the top of the peaks to his west, bathing the snow face below his summit in a red glow. He gave himself several minutes of recovery, knowing he’d be pushing his body to its limits shortly. Two tooth taps brought up the Volkl interface and switched them to competition mode. They stretched, stiffened, and his boots turned to steel bands around his feet and calves.
He inched toward the edge, taking one final moment to visualize the line he’d memorized earlier. Just as he’d done with every competition run in the past, he cleared his mind. Then, with one almost absent minded push, dropped in.
He fell for what seemed like ages, though in reality it was less than a second before he slammed into the top of the chute. This snow was hard packed and icy, and he reflexively tensed his core, keeping his balance as he accelerated down the narrow channel.
And narrow it was. The chute was barely two meters wide, so there was no possibility of any kind of speed control. This was the kind of situation that separated the pro free skier from the wishful thinkers. Within seconds he was traveling at race speed. The chute continued pointing straight down, accelerating him, and with unyielding rock walls an arms length to both his left and right, a mistake would mean a trip to hospital, if he was lucky. All he could do was grit his teeth, and hang on as he accelerated in near free-fall conditions.
But his Volkls fairly relished this kind of situation. As his speed grew they stiffened and straightened, cutting into the snow like razors, and making Jon feel like his feet were strapped to a freight train.
After a hundred meters of insane acceleration, he shot out of the bottom of the chute like a rifle bullet. He eased the Volkls over onto their edges and the tips cut into the pristine powder, sending him into a turn that required all the strength his legs could muster.
That first turn was always the tough one. But, with it behind him, the next one flowed naturally. Then he pulled the turns in tighter, bringing his speed back under control and throwing the powder up behind his skis in a series of spectacular rooster tails.
He was in a zen-like state now, at one with his skis and the mountain. He drifted left and took a ten foot drop without even thinking about it. Then he shot a gap into a rock garden, where he had to chain half a dozen tight turns together, or face getting mashed into boulders.
The rock garden opened into another powder field, but this one was more mellow. His descent into the valley had taken the sting out of the mountain. As he came up on the tree line, the skiing became more what you’d expect to get on a typical guided back country trip, or in a resort. It was still enjoyable, but he could ski this kind of thing on auto pilot. Any danger from a mistake now was distant, and he cruised through the trees and hollows of the slope letting the adrenaline levels subside.
It wasn’t until he was almost on top of the cabin when he noticed the second volantor sitting on the snow next to Vee. It was a standard military light transport model, in alpine camouflage, boxy, and twice Vee’s size. He slid to a quiet stop at the edge of the clearing, taking cover behind a stand of pines. He wasn’t expecting company, and even though the boxy volantor had regimental markings, anyone with black paint and a steady hand could fake those.
Jon dropped his head low and let one eye steal a quick glance around the tree. No-one in sight. Then he took a longer look around the other side, trying to see if the snow around the interloper’s craft was undisturbed. It was.
So, you’re staying in the nice warm cockpit are you, he thought to himself. Well, you can keep on doing that until I can confirm who you are. He backed slowly away, keeping the tree between him and the military volantor, when a branch cracked to his right.
He spun just in time to see a white and gray camouflaged shape drop cougar-like into the snow. His H&K leapt from his jacket’s outside holster and zeroed on the figure.
“You can make yourself a hard man to find, lieutenant.”
The voice was familiar, it was the regimental XO. Jon smiled and lowered the H&K. “That’s sometimes my job, sir. May I ask what you were doing up in that tree?”
“Well, I saw you coming down that face on my way in. It looked like fun. So I figured I’d have a little fun of my own, set me up a little ambush, see if I still had it. See if you still had it.”
“You had the drop on me, but wasn’t that an unnecessary risk. I was only a heartbeat away from pulling the trigger.”
The XO straightened. “We train you boys to distinguish friend from foe in a microsecond. I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t trust my life to that training.”
“Fair point, sir.”
The XO pushed through the snow towards the cabin. “Come on, let’s get out of this cold. I hope you have a drink in there.”
“As long as you’re okay with rum.”
“Rum’s fine. I’ll have time for a quick one while you pack. I’ll brief you on the flight back to Trenton.”
“May I ask why the rush? I’m due back from leave tomorrow, regardless.”
The XO turned and regarded him with an incredulous expression. “Are you serious? You can’t even guess what this is about?”
Jon swallowed. “No sir, I’ve been off grid for the last week.”
“Jesus fucking christ, you’ve been off grid all right. Didn’t you notice that?” He pointed into the darkening, violet sky over the peak Jon had just descended.
Jon’s eyes followed the accusing finger. A dazzling star had just risen above the peak. At first he thought it was one of the orbital habitats. But then he realized that it wasn’t moving, so it wasn’t in orbit around earth, or at least not a low orbit. Either the solar system was the proud owner of another planet, or there was something huge in high orbit.
“What is it?” he asked absent-mindedly, not taking his eyes off the strange celestial object. But the XO didn’t answer him. He’d plowed on ahead and was already in the cabin.
Jon gave a couple of pushes with his stocks to catch up, clicked out of his skis and went inside. The cabin felt like a sauna compared to outside, and Jon peeled off his jacket. The XO had already sniffed out Jon’s rum, and was pouring himself a generous couple of fingers.
“Bedroom. Pack.” He said, just as Jon was about to open his mouth. He pointed to the cabin’s sleeping quarters.
Jon knew better than to argue. So he double timed it into the cabin’s tiny bedroom, then stuffed all his traveling gear into his duffel. It didn’t take long, he traveled light. A quick scan assured him nothing was left behind, at least nothing major, and he was back out the door.
The XO was finishing his drink. “This is a damn fine drop lieutenant. Expensive?”
“Not really, at least not if you buy it in Trinidad. I have a friend from there.”
The grizzled old soldier gave a wicked smile. “Is this the same ‘friend’ your wife objected to?”
“You heard about that?”
“I hear about everything, it’s my job. And given the work we do, you know you can’t expect to have a private life, at least not from the regiment.”
“Not at all. And yes, Annelise is the ‘friend’ my wife objected to.”
“Good for you. Your wife is a piece of work.” He looked into the empty glass and his voice took on a thoughtful tone. “Come to think of it, Annelise is a piece of work as well. Different kind. Better kind maybe.”
“No maybe about it, sir. Sarah would not have approved of this kind of trip. She wouldn’t have felt it a productive use of my time. But Annelise, she encourages it.”
The XO gave a snort. “So why disconnect your volantor’s satellite transceiver?”
Jon gave a guilty smile. “Force of habit.”
“The regimental secretary thought it was odd you gave very specific instructions as to exactly where you’d be. Well, right up until he tried to call you a couple of days ago. Then it made sense.” The XO tossed back the last of his rum. “Are you ready?”
Jon’s superior took two steps toward the door, then stopped and turned. “On second thought, bring that bottle. Also, a glass for yourself. I’m going to have to bring you up to speed on the flight back, and talking is thirsty work.”
Jon grabbed a second glass and followed his superior out the door. While the XO’s transport’s fans were spinning up, he stowed his skis in Vee’s trunk, reconnected her antenna cable, and instructed her to return to his apartment.
He shouldered his duffel and pushed through the snow to the transport’s open hatch. Just before he pulled it closed he took one last look at the face he’d descended that afternoon. The setting sun was casting its final rays on the craggy outcrop, and Jon could just make out the signature his skis had carved out of the untouched snow. The single set of tracks started at the peak, descended the face, and disappeared into the tree line. They were nice turns, flowing and smooth. Then his eyes were drawn to the unusually bright star above the peak, and he wondered briefly what it could be.
What could make the XO spend a couple of hours out of his day, and come all the way over to BC to collect one of the regiment’s lieutenants in person? The only reason that sprang to mind was that everyone else was just too busy to send.
And if they were all too busy, that meant something bigger than usual was going down.
“Shut the hatch, you’re letting the cold in,” grumbled the XO.